Kirsti Wishart’s short stories have appeared in New Writing Scotland, 404 Ink, Glasgow Review of Books, Product Magazine and Biopolis: Tales of Urban Biology. Her debut novel, The Knitting Station, an everyday tale of spies, knitwear and hallucinogenic stovies was published by Rymour Books in March 2021. Her second novel, The Projectionist, appeared in February 2022. Set in the small seaside town of Seacrest, a place obsessed with cinema, it’s a mystery that’s been described as Agatha Christie meets Kenneth Anger. Kirsti lives in Edinburgh and would love you to say hello.
Tell me what inspired you to write your (debut) novel?
The Knitting Station all started when a friend at work brought in a selection of knitting patterns from the 1960s and I became fascinated by the pop subculture they represented. Stars like Twiggy and Roger Moore had started their careers appearing in them and I began to dream up a Studio 54 type knitting factory when the patterns featured. Naturally that had to be set on a remote Scottish island famed for its intricate knitwear. From there it was a short leap to setting a cosy(ish) thriller in the Cold War featuring secret codes, hallucinogenic stovies, scary sheep and a film star called Elsie Brixton.
Years and years and years ago I wrote a Ph.D with chapters on the work of Robert Louis Stevenson and John Buchan. Whilst I do have issues with Buchan, I do admire his narrative drive and wanted to write an adventure romp that subverted and queered up his male-dominated world, a book he might have disapproved of but couldn’t help reading to the end. In contrast to Buchan’s supremely competent Richard Hannay, David Balfour of Stevenson’s Kidnapped, has a touching vulnerability and is a surprisingly inept action hero. In Hannah Richards, a former Bletchley Park codebreaker and heroine of The Knitting Station, I hope I’ve created someone who similarly thinks they’re fairly useless in some ways but succeeds in the end.
What came first the characters or the world?
A bit of both. My novels tend to start with a concept that intrigues me – what if the worlds of James Bond and knitwear collided? What would a Scottish seaside town obsessed with cinema look like? – but concept alone isn’t enough to sustain a novel. It’s the characters that help decide and drive the plot and keep you and hopefully the reader engaged. Novel-writing is a long and lonely process so you have to make sure your imaginary friends make for interesting company.
How hard was it to get your first (debut) book published?
As is sometimes the case with publishing, nothing happened for ages and then it was all ridiculously quick. I’d got in touch with Rymour Books via twitter with a proposal for another, unwritten book. Much to my surprise/panic, they were very keen and to distract them from the length of time it would take to get that one done, I offered them The Knitting Station which they snapped up. Persistence is all as you never know when that door is going to take you by surprise and swing wide open.
How long did it take to write?
It took three years which is a very long time for such a daft wee book but I work full time and have a stupidly lengthy process. My first draft is always very long and messy and is essentially me trying to work out what the book’s about. Once that first draft is done, I open up another file and being another draft, then another, then another…with each one it does get easier as I pare away and get a clearer idea of what it is I’m actually working on.
Do you have a writing playlist?
I like music that can play gently in the background and help get your mind into the meditative state that best helps with making stuff up. Minimalist composers are very handy for this so Steve Reich, John Adams along with Arvo Part, Vaughan Williams and, for The Knitting Station, The Lost Songs of St Kilda.
How many publishers turned you down?
A couple, which feels very flukey now as The Knitting Station is very – how can I put it…? – quirky. I was lucky indeed to find someone prepared to take a chance on it
What kind of reactions have you had to your book?
Generally very positive as people do like their knitting. I think the cast of strong female characters also helps. Fantastically, it’s stocked by a local woolshop, Kathy’s Knits in Edinburgh, and sales have been pretty constant.
What’s the favourite reaction you’ve had to your book?
Two very talented friends produced knitted and embroidered celebrations to mark its publication, both of which still bring a tear to my eye (in a good way).
What can you tell us about your next book?
The Projectionist was published by Rymour in March 2022 and has the sheep and knitwear of The Knitting Station replaced by filmstars and cinemas. It’s set in the fictional Scottish town of Seacrest, a town obsessed by cinema, and is about the effect of the arrival of the mysterious film critic, Cameron Fletcher, on its inhabitants. It features Orson Welles, tunnels filled with movie paraphernalia, the biggest Lost Property Office you’ve ever seen and a very angry parrot called Stanley.
Do you take notice of online reviews?
There haven’t been too many to be honest and the ones there have been have been generally kind so far although one reader did find The Knitting Station ‘childish and rather too odd.’ Which I have to say, sums it up pretty accurately!
Would you ever consider writing outside your current genre?
As the Buchanesque-lesbian-knitting-Cold War-thriller is somewhat niche, I think it’s inevitable I’ll end up writing outside that genre, unless offered a substantial amount of money for a sequel. I do like the structure provided by genre fiction and although my second novel, The Projectionist, attempts to be more of a ‘literary’ novel, it does wander quite substantially into mystery territory. Genre helps provide the engine of plot that pulls the reader along.
What did you do before (or still do) you became a writer?
I believe it was Jenny Diski who said the best job for a writer is being the person who corrals shopping trollies in supermarket carparks as it’s useful work that keeps you physically active and gives you lots of thinking time. I ended up doing the admin equivalent of that by becoming a low-ranking civil servant which provided plenty of security and time to write if maybe not the physical activity. Having a job to fall back on is pretty much essential to all but a tiny percent of writers in financial terms but I also think it’s very valuable to have a job that can feed into your writing to give it that depth of experience, perhaps in unexpected ways. However, as the years have gone by I’ve made the mistake of getting promoted and writing time feels as though it’s shrinking…
Which author(s) inspire you?
Iain Banks and Michael Chabon as they wrote the books they wanted to write to give maximum enjoyment to their readers and weren’t afraid to indulge in the pleasures of genre. Diana Wynne Jones and China Mieville for their fantastic, layered worlds, magical yet grounded in a recognisable reality.
Which genres do you read yourself?
I have to admit, I’ve haven’t read a great deal of fiction in recent years but tend towards non-fiction. I do like Golden Age crime fiction like Agatha Christie, Edmund Crispin and Gladys Mitchell along with modern day practitioners like Christopher Fowler with his excellent Bryant and May series. Helena Marchmont’s (Olga Wojta’s pseudonym) Bunburry books have been a real comfort over the past couple of years. Olga’s novels featuring the indomitable time-travelling librarian Shona MacMonagle are also always worth a read.
What is your biggest motivator?
To create characters and worlds that I enjoy spending time in and that readers like to visit too. Bringing something into the world that didn’t exist ten minutes ago is scary but also hugely satisfying, especially for someone like me who has very limited practical skills!
What will always distract you?
If there’s reality show featuring cooking/jewellery making/glass-blowing/wood-working/pottery than I’m afraid there’s a very high chance I’m going to be found watching that rather than working on a chapter.
How much (if any) say do you have in your book covers?
Ian Spring of Rymour Books has done an excellent job on my covers so far. I passed on a suggestion for The Knitting Station and what he came up more than matched my expectation. I would never have thought of the cover for The Projectionist but loved it as soon as I saw it so thankfully there’s hasn’t been the need for much discussion around them other than me saying, ‘That’s great!’.
Were you a big reader as a child?
My earliest memories are connected with reading, I can remember asking my mum to ask the nursery staff if I could take home a comic and have a very clear memory of a book with ‘This is a cake’ in it in Primary One, thereby merging two of my great loves, reading and patisserie. I loved visits to the library featuring a Kit-kat and a limeade in the café after (you can tell I had a Scottish childhood). My inclinations were towards genre fiction with Alfred Hitchcock’s The Three Investigators and Willard Price adventure stories featuring heavily. And every child should read The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper.
What were your favourite childhood books?
As mentioned above, I loved The Three Investigators but one of my very favourite books was a Disney’s Duck Tales comic book (hey, I was a kid!). I also really enjoyed The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea and keep on meaning to revisit it. Some books you loved as a child can disappoint when you back to them but I’m sure that won’t be one of them.
Do you have a favourite bookshop? If so, which?
Edinburgh is blessed with fantastic bookshops, for me it would have to be a tie between Till’s, a second-hand bookshop, and Typewronger, both places where you’re guaranteed stumbling across treasures. Golden Hare, Argonaut and Elvis & Shakespeare are always worth visits too.
What books can you not resist buying?
Old Penguin paperbacks of Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark. The covers alone are worth the price but what’s inside isn’t too bad either.
Do you have any rituals when writing?
A cup of tea, a biscuit (see ‘This is a cake’ above) some nice music playing. All to trick the brain into thinking it’s about to do something purely enjoyable rather than potentially difficult and heart-breaking (which it isn’t once you get going, it’s the starting that’s the worst bit).
How many books are in your own physical TBR pile?
A pile too teetering to count.
What is your current or latest read?
Nose Dive by Harold McGee, a wonderful exploration of the world of smells and The Secret Lives of Colour by Kasia St Clair, a fascinating treasure trove of information featuring all the colours of the rainbow and then some.
Any books that you’re looking forward to in the next 12 months?
I was fortunate enough to have been selected as a member of the Scottish Book Trust and Creative Scotland Debut Lab, a scheme to help support authors who released their debut novel during the pandemic. I’ll be looking forward to reading forthcoming works by Heather Darwent and Yvonne Banham as well as working my way through all the other debutants on the list.
Any plans or projects in the near future you can tell us about?
Hopefully there might be a third novel appearing next year called The Pocketbook Guide to Scottish Superheroes. And I might finally get finished a novel I’ve been working on for far too long, if only so I can get it out the way and on to other projects!
Any events in the near future?
There are a couple of events in the planning stages with Edinburgh Central Libraries for Book Week Scotland that runs from 14th – 22nd November. Further info will no doubt be announced via my twitter account – @kirstiw